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MEDIEVAL MEN GOT THE POINT—AND BUNIONS TOO

JUST AS MANY women today pay a painful price for wearing squeeze-toe stiletto heels, stylish medieval European men suffered from what BBC News, June 11, 2021, called the “Cambridge bunion surge.” This finding came after University of Cambridge archaeologists analyzed skeletons from city cemeteries as part of their After the Plague project.

Archaeologists unearth skeletons at St. John’s College, Cambridge, the site of a medieval friary and hospital. Image by Craig Cessford for BBC News, June 11, 2021.

Medieval Bunions. Paleopathologist Jenna Dittmar is now a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen. Earlier at Cambridge, she was involved in the project. As noted by Katie Hunt at CNN Style, June 10, 2021, “Dittmar and her colleagues analyzed a total of 177 skeletons from the 11th to the 15th centuries buried in and around Cambridge in the United Kingdom. The research team found that 27 percent of the skeletons dating from the 14th and 15th centuries suffered from bunions, compared with only six percent that dated back between the 11th and 13th centuries.

A medieval left-foot big toe with Hallus valgus. This and the following image from BBC News, June 11, 2021.

Medically, a bunion, Hallus valgus, is a condition in which the big toe angles inward and a bony protrusion forms at its base. It can be painful and even affect balance.

Pointy Shoes the Culprit. BBC News cites Dr. Piers Mitchell saying that almost all 14th-century shoes found in Cambridge and London excavations were at least slightly pointed.

An artist’s impresssion of an adult’s shoe from the late 14th century.

“Sufferers,” BBC News notes, “were more likely to be men (20 out of 31 finds), better off, urban, clergy, despite the latter being forbidden from wearing the fashionable footware, known as poulaine.”

Image from Atlas Obscura.

A Class Thing. CNN’s Hunt calls poulaines “the Jimmy Choos of their day.” Bunions appeared to be a class thing. Only three percent of those in a rural cemetery outside Cambridge showed evidence of bunions.   This rose to 10 percent in the outskirts of town, in a cemetery for the working poor. 

However, 23 percent of those buried in a Cambridge charitable hospital had bunions. And 43 percent of those interred in the grounds of a former Augustine friary, principally clergy and wealthy benefactors, suffered from them.

Hunt notes, “While friars were supposed to wear clothes that reflected a simple lifestyle of worship, it was common for clergy to wear stylish attire. Fly [keen or artful] clergy were such a concern to church officials that they were forbidden from wearing pointed-toe shoes in 1215. That said, the decree appeared to have little effect, with further edicts on clerical dress passed in 1281 and 1342, the study noted.”

Chaucer’s Monk Too? Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, c. 1400, recounts a monk so stylish that “I pray to God, yeve hym confusioun/ That first thee broghte unto religioun.” A rendering into Modern English: “I pray that God confound the silly fool/ That put you first into a religious school.”

We can suspect that Chaucer’s mod monk was wearing pointy shoes. 

In 1463, King Edward IV of England passed a law limiting shoe toe length to less than two inches. By the way, he is noteworthy for another reason: At 6 ft. 4 1/2 in. tall, Edward IV ranks as the tallest monarch in English history.

Edward IV meets one of his subjects. Image from factinate.com.

Note the king’s footware. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

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